Saturday, October 27, 2007

Five Part Series: Writing Lessons From Stargate SG-1

It is interesting to watch television in the writer frame of mind. What would be, to the average viewer, an enjoyable and almost effortless opportunity to relax in the world’s of our fictional friends, becomes an intriguing weave of technique, language, structure, and seamless formula; a masterful journey through character development, plot, sub-plot, continuity, hooks and hangers.

I’ve been watching Stargate SG-1 for hours this week all in the name of research. (I wonder if I can write the DVDs off as a tax deduction.) Often the trusty t.v. is the portal through which our brains seep but I’ve found that there are also some incredible lessons we can learn. Stargate isn’t the only television series to offer these lessons. My other personal favorites are Dark Angel, House, Californication, Hero and Charmed.

What these six television series have in common is their complex meta-story and character development. I’m sure there are other series that have shared this asset. Each of these series starts from episode one, season one and tells a story, through every episode which ties to every thread from the beginning to end or the series as a whole.

Other shows, such as The Simpsons, Futurama, and NCIS each take a cut of life. Their episodes could be watched out of order, with zero continuity and still be as enjoyable but with my favorite six, if you miss an episode you’ll have a significant gap in events. Every episode is important because they are woven together, like a brilliantly structured series of novels.

In the coming weeks I’m going to explore what I’ve learnt in a five part series.

  • Part One: Story-Arc, Plot and Sub-Plot
    We’ll explore the familiar curves of story arc over episodes, seasons and series then delve into the complex unity of plot and the careful techniques used to tie sub-plot into a cohesive story.

  • Part Two: Character Development
    We watch the growth of loved and loathed characters as they develop through a series. These characters share their pasts and present with us, we develop emotional connections that leave us intimately involved in their future.

  • Part Three: Action and Dialogue
    Why t.v. and movies are a fantastic way to encourage powerful writing. All ‘Show’ and no ‘Tell’. How can we incorporate this audio/visual experience and translate it for written media?

  • Part Four: Hooks, Hangers and the Sequence of Events
    How t.v. series writers have mastered the ‘Story Hook’. They grip us in the first few minutes pre opening credits and leave us hanging as the final credits roll across the screen. How does the sequence of events hold an audience? We’ll explore the finer points of when to push and when to pull your viewers/readers.

  • Part Five: Formula - Making A Success Key Mould
    The most successful t.v. series follow a very specific formula, so do many writers. What keeps this formula fresh and interesting? How can we make a mould of our own successes so we can replicate them in the future?

I hope you’re as intrigued by the idea as I am. If you’ve been looking for a legitimate excuse to spend a few hours watching old episodes of your favorite shows you now have one. Consider it homework if you like. Watch t.v. with your writer’s mind fully switched on and tuned in. What do you learn about writing from your favorite t.v. series?

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Blogger Reb said...

Hi, this is my first visit to your blog (by way of Virginia Lee). Another series that is great and needs to be watched in order is "Farscape" which was yanked far too soon. It has a complex story, great characters, is funny and has fabulous costumes - courtesy of Jim Henson's company.
I'm not a writer, just a reader/watcher, I just thought this was another one you should have a look at.

12:52 AM  
Anonymous Natasha said...

Sounds like another great series - I'm looking forward to reading the first part!

I have to admit, I've only recently 'learnt' to watch television shows as a story (after my husband and I watched every episode of Buffy and Angel over a year and a half). Before that, I was very sporadic in my watching of shows, and would always be wondering what was going on after returning to the show after a couple of weeks.

I loved the first series of 'Heroes' for the story, and also 'Rome' which was shown in NZ early last year.

1:51 AM  
Blogger Michele said...

Hi Rebecca,

I'm more of a "good movie" type girl. Inspirational movies with hard times, yet in the end everyone has come together and "it all worked out." I also love comedy.

I know what you mean, though. I can't seem to turn my brain off while I'm watching tv and just relax. I'm thinking, "I would have written that scene differently." or "I never would have ended the story that way!"

My mind wheel always turns, but sometimes it's exhausting and distracting ;0)


1:44 AM  
Anonymous Anne said...

I've tried to do what you suggest, but I'm too easily sucked in by the story.

I haven't seen any of the series you mention, either! I just finished seeing "Firefly" (a series that shouldn't have been cancelled) and catching up through all the years of "24."

You're very analytical. I may have to watch the shows you're talking about to understand this series. Let me know if you CAN write off the DVDs....

1:38 AM  
Blogger Rebecca Laffar-Smith said...

Welcome to The Writer's Round-About Reb. :-) I enjoyed the few episodes of "Farscape" I could watch during it's short-lived time on Aussie TV but I couldn't put aside my disbelief so it snagged a little in my mind. I remember being intrigued by the story and characters. It seems like science fiction is the most adaptable genre for this kind of viewing.

Great to see you again Natasha. It is always interesting to go from being a simple viewer to a writer/viewer. Sometimes I miss those days when I didn't notice quite so much about stories. After a while movies and t.v. episodes start becoming easier to predict which can sometimes spoil the ending but it's also fun to try and guess how things will turn out.

I think series to DVD is fantastic because it lets us watch in our own time and episode after episode with fewer gaps. The lack of ads is great too. I don't watch much on actual t.v. any more. I'd rather wait till it's released on DVD.

I missed out on seeing Rome. It's one I want to watch. I'll have to hunt it down. :-)

You can learn a great deal from Movies too Michele but not to the same degree as t.v. series. I try to watch from as many genres as possible but often return to my favorites. Each genre has its own lessons too so if you're used to watching specific genres it could be a fun experiement to watch something you wouldn't normally consider with your writer's mind switched on.

lol It sure is distracting. In fact, sometimes writing our own stories is the only way to relax. Instead of picking apart the work of others we can enjoy the journey of discovering a story where we do have control of the direction it takes.

I haven't seen "Firefly" Anne. I'll have to see if I can check that one out. I haven't heard of it either. I definitely recommend checking out some of these series even if it's only as research. You could always hire them from your local entertainment (video/dvd) store. I expect if you go on to write specifically from your viewing experience (perhaps reviews or topic related articles) you could definitely write it off as a tax deduction.

12:58 PM  
Blogger deb said...

Hi, Reb - this is Deb. *grin*

I'm not a tax expert, but your off-hand comment about wondering if you can deduct your DVDs caught my attention.

In the US, at least, anything you use AS A WRITER to further your business, should be a deductible expense. This includes all books -- yes, even fiction, not just how-to-write non-fiction, and NOT just the fiction genre in which you are writing.

As writers, we must read widely and voraciously to become better writers (on-going education). Most importantly, we need to know our marketplace, which is constantly evolving (also on-going education). That means all subscriptions to our industry's trade journals should also be deductible.

If it's a tool you need to use to conduct your writing business (and let's face it -- if you don't see it as a business, you've just got a hobby. That's how the US tax authorities see it, too.) then that tool should be deductible. Otherwise, you're missing out on significant tax savings as you build your business and hone your skills.

The only way we can keep up with our industry and grow as writers is to take classes, attend conventions, participate in writer's groups, keep up with industry trade journals (Writer's Digest, The Writer, and the many wonderful online magazines and newsletters), and to watch/read, study and analyze films, TV series, and books -- lots and lots of books.

That, and having a life. Without a life rich with experiences and interaction, not to mention times of reflection, of observing the human condition, of eavesdropping on conversations to catch great dialogue bits, then it's hard to create someone else's life on paper.

So do CHECK WITH A TAX EXPERT, or CHEAPER, try doing your own taxes with a computer-based program. Don't know if you have an Australian version of TurboTax, but I couldn't function in my business without it. It guides me through every little step I need to take. (This year I used their online version - no need for a CD or to download, but I recommend a broadband connection.)

I don't have to worry about what forms to file, what things are allowed, and I especially don't need to slog through the tax instruction and information booklets. Those could use some serious help for clarity... They need writers!

Deb Gallardo
The Story Ideas Virtuoso
(Blog for writers)

12:11 AM  
Blogger Rebecca Laffar-Smith said...

Wow! Fantastic comment Deb! Thanks for visiting. I love your thoughts.

I know there are a lot of things I can deduct from my taxes but I'm also aware that I'm not earning very much. In fact, I don't pay tax because I don't reach the taxable income threshold.

Tax is a sticky subject but I know it's important to keep receipts and records for a number of years. I can claim expenses for the past few years when my yearly income (specifically from writing) does begin to get taxed.

It's at the point you decide to go pro that you really should talk with an accountant or financial advisor to at least understand the laws and our responsibilities because it can be very easy to make costly mistakes.

11:25 PM  

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